If you were a racing fan 50 years ago this month, it is likely that only one name would have featured on your lips – Nijinsky.

No, not the ballet dancer, but a three-year-old colt ridden usually by Lester Piggott and trained in Ireland by the Master of Ballydoyle, the incomparable Vincent O’Brien.

The trio of horse, jockey and trainer made 1970 a fabulous year for racing, and the name of Nijinsky usually comes first to most experts’ minds when they are asked about the greatest racehorse of them all. Yes, Frankel was utterly outstanding, but Nijinsky’s feats at differing distances give him the right to be acclaimed as the best, certainly in British and Irish terms.  

After an unbeaten season as a two-year-old, winning five races comfortably, Nijinsky had won the 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby and the bay horse with his distinctive white star and three white feet was already a massive hit with the public as his biggest test to date approached – the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in July, 1970.

 Piggott had only teamed up with him in his last race at two, a facile victory in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket, but the Long Fellow knew he was riding something special and the 2,000 Guineas had proven it as Nijinsky sauntered away from a field of good horses.

The Derby at Epsom had a stronger field, led by the great French hope Gyr, but Piggott gave a master class in holding up his horse, positioning Nijinsky perfectly in the home straight so that when Gyr forged ahead, just a couple of taps with the whip produced the required acceleration for Nijinsky and Piggott to zip past Gyr and win comfortably at the line. “We were only ever cantering,” said the ever-taciturn Piggott. And he meant it - had he made full use of his horse they would have smashed the Derby speed record.

Proving it was no fluke and that he didn’t need Piggott to shine, Nijinsky went over to the Curragh and won the Irish Derby under Liam Ward.  

The son of Northern Dancer was believed to be capable of winning at most distances, and having won the Guineas over a mile and two Derbies over 12 furlongs, he was being aimed at the St Leger over 1m 6f at Doncaster in September. The significance of that target is that it is the final part of the fabled Triple Crown of racing, a feat last performed before Nijinsky by the brilliant Barham in 1935.

Before the Leger, however, came Nijinsky’s biggest test to date, the ‘King George’ at Ascot. It was his first encounter with older horses and the quality of the field against him was staggering – the previous year’s Derby winner Blakeney, Coronation Cup winner Caliban, French Oaks heroine Crepellana, Italian-trained Hogarth who had been third in the race in 1969, and Karabas, winner of the previous year’s Washington International.

Now the racing world would find out if all the hype about Nijinsky was true, and both O’Brien and Piggott were quietly confident as was his American multi-millionaire owner Charles Engelhard who, fortunately for British racing, had studied at Oxford, maintained a home in London and liked winning Classics. He would eventually bag six in all, three of them by Nijinsky.

The crowd at Ascot were to a man and woman all fans of Piggott and Nijinsky. For the first ten furlongs of the mile-and-a-half race, Piggott tucked Nijinsky into fifth place, but as the field passed the two furlong pole, he switched his colt to the outside and began an irresistible run down the outside of a class field that suddenly looked as though they were treading in mud.

“Here comes Nijinsky” said the non-pareil of commentators, Peter O’Sullevan, on the BBC coverage of the race which can be seen on YouTube. “What a horse this is,” added O’Sullevan, “he’s trotted up.”

Piggott delivered his verdict to a breathless pack of racing correspondents: “The best I’ve ever ridden.” What a compliment from the greatest jockey of them all.

The scene was thus set for the St Leger and the Triple Crown. Back in Ballydoyle, O’Brien’s wizardry went to work on improving the colt’s stamina to last out the full trip. There were plenty who doubted whether such a fast horse who had blitzed the Derby and King George could actually go two furlongs further, but O’Brien and Piggott both knew that he did and the public trusted their judgement – he was sent off the 2-7 favourite.

O’Brien had also ironed out Nijinsky’s only kink, his tendency to get excited before races and the big bay went down to the start as if he knew what he had to do.

On September 12, 1970, Nijinsky made history by securing the Triple Crown, barely having to work to win a shade cosily at the end. No male horse has won it since, but Oh So Sharp did it for the distaff side in 1985, winning  the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger for the late great Henry Cecil.

Nijinsky failed to add the Arc and Champion Stakes, Piggott concluding that the colt had passed his peak. Nijinsky was retired to stud where he fathered many champions before his death in 1992, but he will always be remembered for the glorious summer of his Triple Crown.